Profile: Filmmakers Lyn And Bill Norton & Sizzling Steamed Fish
Lyn Norton is a very good cook. On a warm winter day in their airy, sun-filled kitchen in Venice, California, she and her husband Bill prepped a foot-long, silvery calico bass for lunch and chatted with me about what they eat.
“I kill, she cooks,” proclaimed Bill, referring to seafood. He typically procures it a few days a week from the Pacific Ocean, about 400 feet off the Malibu coast, by diving down from his kayak and spearfishing or catching what’s around: sea bass, lobster, scallops, crab or sea urchin. “I started to fish when I was 13,” he said. “I would hitchhike [18 miles] from Will Rogers State Park in Pacific Palisades, where I lived, all the way to Malibu.”
At home, he hands off his catch to Lyn—who turns it into dishes such as gumbo, cioppino, or spaghetti with uni—and his role changes to kitchen assistant.
“He’s good at following orders,” deadpanned Lyn. “He chops garlic, cleans lettuce, and also does all the dishes after.”
“I look in the fridge and see nothing to eat,” added Bill. ”She looks in the fridge and invents a meal. So, my favorite recipe is called ‘You cook, I eat.’”
Lyn is of Japanese-Hawaiian descent and grew up in Brooklyn with parents who didn’t much enjoy cooking. “My mom was a terrible cook,” she said, while we all sampled her steamed fish (moist, flaky, addictive—see recipe below). “She liked processed, chemically engineered, powdered and canned stuff.”
Lyn started cooking in college and is completely self-taught. “I have an addiction to newspaper recipes.” Later, she deepened her culinary skills in a restaurant her father opened in Marina Del Rey. It was a sushi place, one of the first in the area, and Lyn worked there for five years. “I waited tables and helped with cooking.” This is also where she met Bill.
Besides collaborating on delicious seafood dishes, Lyn and Bill enjoy hosting a regular Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering of 30 friends and family members, which takes place in their offbeat, Frank Gehry-designed beachfront house. Funny story: A few years back, Bill was barbecuing a whole turkey on their balcony grill. After it was cooked, he placed it on top of the balcony railing to let it rest, and he went inside the house. A moment later, when he came back, the bird was gone; it had fallen and landed on the sidewalk below. Without missing a beat, Bill went down, picked it up, cleaned it, and served it to unassuming guests. Nobody noticed a thing. Thanksgiving was saved.
Age Combined age of 250 — Hometown Brooklyn, NY/El Monte, CA — Where do you live? Venice, CA — Occupation Lyn is a script supervisor. Bill is a writer/director/fish killer. — Signature dish Uni pasta — Who taught you how to cook? Me and my recipe file. I am a recipe whore. My mother was a terrible cook. Bill has never learned to cook. — Favorite kitchen tool Meat pounder—not used a lot, but it’s beautiful and doubles as a home defense tool. — Always in your pantry Dog food — Go-to snack Peanut butter and apple for me. Bill loves peanuts in the shell. — Favorite cuisine Impossible decision. No comment. — Do you diet? No, no. — Food addictions Stinky cheese and poke (not at the same time). Bill gorges on peanuts and oranges. — Food allergies 0 — Food fad pet peeve Anything “awesome.” — Who’s your sous chef? If you mean the ignorant, good-natured guy who just does what he’s told to do... that would be Bill. — Drinking while cooking? That usually results in fingers spurting blood, burning, and howling swear words. So, I try not to. Bill does, which is why those things still happen. — What’s for dinner tonight? Something at a restaurant? — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? Over a spilled turkey, yes (see above). — Best meal you ever had New Year’s Day with my Japanese-Hawaiian relatives—a massive potluck with sushi, crab, lobster, duck, exotic/weird seafood, etc. We eat all day, watch football, and play bingo! It ends with ozoni (good luck soup) to start the New Year.
Sizzling Steamed Fish
This is one of Lyn’s favorite ways to prepare fish—quickly steamed, scattered with an aromatic mix of fresh ginger, garlic and spring onion, and doused with a soy sauce-sake dressing. To finish it, she uses a technique popular in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking, of pouring hot oil all over the fish. It sizzles dramatically while fusing all the ingredients together, resulting in a light, exquisitely flavored, mouth-watering dish.
Because taste is personal, and because fish come in different shapes and sizes—whole fish or fillets can be used in this recipe—you might need to adjust the amounts of the ingredients: less garlic for a milder version, more soy sauce and oil if the fish is bigger. Still, it is all easy and pretty straightforward, and you can’t really go wrong.
Lyn uses a proper fish steamer in her kitchen because, thanks to Bill, she has a steady supply of fish, but you don’t need to spend money on one. Instead, improvise with a regular roasting pan that you’d use for chicken or turkey, and with a cooling rack for baking that fits into it. The pan just needs to be long enough to fit the fish and made from a material suitable for use on a stovetop (cast iron or stainless steel, for example). Cover it with a lid or aluminum foil, and you’re good to steam.
- Serves 2
- 1–2 whole fish, head and tail on, cleaned and scaled (sea bass, tilapia, rock cod, trout, sole, catfish or whitefish)
- 2-inch piece ginger, peeled, finely chopped, plus 3 thin slices
- 1–2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
- 2–3 green onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
- 6–8 sprigs cilantro, leaves only, chopped
- Soy sauce
- Sake or white wine, at room temperature
- ¼ cup vegetable oil (canola or peanut)
- Take the fish out of the refrigerator, and let it rest on the kitchen counter for 15 minutes.
- With a sharp knife, make 3 diagonal slashes on both sides of the fish. Place the fish in a fish steamer, or create your own by placing a flat steamer rack or cooling rack in a stovetop-safe roasting pan (do not use a glass or ceramic one). Pour in water to cover the bottom of the pan, and add the 3 slices of ginger. Cover the pan with a lid or secure tightly with aluminum foil. Steam the fish over medium heat until opaque—10 minutes for each 1-inch thickness of fish.
- Alternatively, you may poach the fish. Place it in a poaching kettle or a pot that fits it, and cover it with water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, and then reduce to simmer. Poach for 10 minutes for each 1-inch thickness of fish.
- Carefully transfer the fish to a large, rimmed plate. Strain the poaching liquid. Use 1 part poaching liquid, 2 parts soy sauce, and a splash of sake or white wine to create sauce for the fish—depending on the fish size, make enough so the fish will sit in a shallow pool of it. Pour the sauce all over the fish.
- Loosely mound the ginger over the fish in a 1-inch-wide stripe down the middle. Place the garlic on top of the ginger, and sprinkle half the green onion over it. (Use less ginger and garlic for a milder taste.)
- Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, until it reaches a smoking point. Slowly and carefully pour the oil over the ginger, garlic and onions; it will sizzle and cook the condiments. Depending on the fish size, you might need to heat up more oil.
- Sprinkle the cilantro and the rest of the green onion over the fish. Discard the head and tail. Serve with steamed rice.
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